In our own time, the global reach of communications has created tensions between the relative stasis of traditional life patterns, and the fluidity of modern life experience. This course will study twenty and twenty-first century writers in the context of the historical events, geographical realities, and cultural practices that have produced them and that define their work. We will read comparatively, focusing on topics that we will trace across works from China, Japan, India, as well as South and North Africa. Of particular interest to our study will be representations of home, stability, and tradition, as counters to narratives that explore human trauma, displacement, and suffering. Among the many questions we will ask: how are the costs of warfare represented across cultures? What role does narrative play in the reconciliation between past trauma and present circumstance? How does, or can, beauty—particularly the beauty of literature and art — be a source of redemption? What different social practices and interactions are celebrated in the places that we visit? What traditions are critiqued and reassessed by the fiction we read?
Written assignments for this course will include both informal pieces that focus on the specifics of in-country experience in light of our on-board reading, as well as more formal and broader comparative responses to the different regions we encounter. Since one of the goals of this course will be to articulate our experience of world and word as coherently and elegantly as possible, all students will be encouraged and, for at least one assignment, required, to take advantage of the on-board Writing Center.
Field WorkCountry: Myanmar (Burma)
Day: 2 - Friday, 19 February
As we approach Myanmar by ship, we will be reading Burmese Days, George Orwell’s 1934 novel about the last days of British colonial rule. Our study of this novel will focus on the performance and construction of national identity—Burmese and British--in the form of buildings, social interchange, commerce, and spiritual life. In the morning, we will take a walking tour of old Rangoon in search of British colonial architecture, including the old Railway headquarters, the Immigration building, and the Secretariat. We’ll have lunch at the Strand Hotel (where Orwell himself also spent time). Once called “the finest hostelry East of Suez” (by John Murray, in his popular early 20th-century guide book), for many years the Strand was one of Southeast Asia’s grand colonial hotels. We’ll be focusing on its social significance (while we eat!) in our discussion of the centrality of the European club to Orwell’s novel.
After lunch we’ll have a tour of the famous Scott market (Bogyoke Aung San), also built in the early-twentieth century. After reflection on the social and commercial significance of the marketplace, our field lab will visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, which towers 326 feet above Yangon. Built more than 2500 years ago, the Shwedagon may give us a glimpse into the cultural history and ongoing performance of spirituality and tradition that repels, attracts, and mystifies Orwell’s characters.
1. Consider visibility of colonial history in contemporary Yangon.
2. Explore sites of current day commerce.
3. Place Orwell’s novel of 1934 in the richer context of ancient Myanmar history.